Spaghetti alla Laksa Pesto
I’m usually not a big fan of fusion food. Call me archaic but I prefer to keep the flavours of the dishes I prepare “clean” and true to their roots and origins. French is kept as French as possible while Chinese remains distinctively Chinese. Save for a few exceptions in pastry making, crossovers ain’t exactly my thing. That said, the devil’s advocate in me would sprout the occasional what ifs, curious what the dish would be like when it is totally taken out of context or juxtapose with another cooking genre. And of late, these previously occasional episodes of what ifs are beginning to haunt me more frequently.
“Laksa Pesto” is not a new thing to the local culinary scene. First thought to be the ingenuity of some young budding chef some years back, it was quickly replicated by other fusion-themed restaurants and food bloggers as well. A tradtional sauce originating in Genoa in northern Italy, the amalgamation of herbs, nuts, hard cheese, garlic and olive oil was made colloquial here in Singapore through the use of produce which are commonly employed in local cuisines unique to this region of the world. Pine nuts became cashew nuts, an ingredient which reminds me of Chinese New Year cookies and diversely different it may sound, a thickening agent in Indian cooking, while the role traditionally helmed by sweet basil in the Genoese version is taken over by Vietnamese coriander, a herb very widely used in Straits and Indochinese cooking, most notably for its role in “laksa”, an umbrella term for a diverse variety of rice noodles dishes where the leaves are commonly employed for their much desired pungent aromas and flavour. Apart from being known by its Malay name “daun kesum“, it is frequently called “laksa leaves” hence giving rise to the name of this pesto. The umami flavours from cheese is replicated through adding fish sauce, a very apt substitute befitting of its role to provide much of that wonderful umami richness to the laksa pesto sauce, just like what parmesan does to the original Italian construction.
Raw cashew nuts are used, first chopped coarsely and then roasted in the oven at a low temperature of 120C until lightly brown. The nutty aroma rendered through freshly roasted cashew nuts is really lovely. Try doing it yourself and you’ll know what I mean. Packaged salted roasted cashew nuts typically served as a cocktail snack is an acceptable replacement if raw ones are not available or one’s too lazy to do the roasting. But be forewarned that the flavours and aroma imparted would be much less intense, somewhat subdued and compromised. If these salted nuts are used, take care to cut back on the salt used in the recipe, or omit it altogether if necessary. Try not to use those which had been fried in oil.
Spaghetti alla Laksa Pesto Recipe (adapted from here) Serves 4
for Laksa Pesto
3 cups Vietnamese coriander, aka daun kesum or better known as “laksa leaves”
5-8 cloves garlic
200g raw cashew nuts, coarsely chopped and roasted at around 120C to a light golden brown
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 cup of extra virgin olive oil
for spaghetti and garnish
4 servings of spaghetti or any long strand pasta variety of your choice
8-12 fresh large prawns
2 cili padi （bird’s eye chilli) or for less heat 1 large red chilli
2-3 leaves of Vietnamese coriander aka laksa leaves, optional
1 bunga kantan (torch ginger blossom), optional
2 tbsp of kerisik (toasted grated coconut), optional
1. Place all the pesto ingredients into a food blender (NOT FOOD PROCESSOR) and blitz until a thick paste is formed.
2. In a heavy saucepan or pot of boiling water, cook pasta with a pinch of salt according to the instructions and time duration stipulated on the packaging.
3. Cook the prawns whichever way you wish, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and sautéed is a good way. Otherwise, the lazy man’s approach like what I did, i.e.blanch them by adding them together with the pasta into the boiling water at the beginning but remove them immediately when they are just cooked, rosy pink but remaining juicy and succulent. This usually takes less than 1 min.
4. While the pasta continues to cook, prepare the garnishes. Chop cili padi into small pinhead morsels and set aside. Remove the seeds first if less heat is desired. For an even less spicy version, regular red chilli can be used. If using, chiffonade laksa leaves into thin strips, cut bunga kantan into thin rings and set aside.
5. Once the pasta is cooked until al dente, removing immediately with a pair of tongs into a mixing bowl. Add laksa pesto sauce (appro. 2 generous tablespoons per serving), cooked prawns, chilli padi and the prepared garnishes like chopped laksa leaves, bunga kantan and kerisik. Toss well and if necessary, add 1 or 2 tbsp of the hot pasta cooking water to help emulsify the pesto paste for it to bind better with the pasta and other ingredients. Plate up and serve immediately.
Just some quick notes on the pesto and cooking. The nuts should be completely pulverised to release the oils within that helps to accentuate the nuttiness of the dish. The number of garlic cloves used depends on the intensity of the flavours desired. The astringency from the garlic is part of the palate sensation in the pesto, and hence should be assertive and lingering. But do not go beyond 8 cloves though as it would tip the flavours the wrong way creating a bitter aftertaste which is not really pleasant.
Do not drain the pasta too much after cooking and definitely do not rinse or plunge in cold water to curb the cooking whatsoever as what some other pasta recipes may require. This is a toss-in recipe and the plunging is uncalled for. The hot pasta cooking water that coats the noodle strands helps to bind the pesto paste together with the spaghetti allowing them to cling onto the latter evenly. And as always never add oil to the water during the pasta cooking process. That would be totally counter-intuitive as while this helps to prevent the strands from sticking together, it also prevents the pesto sauce from combining with pasta as well.
Using the recipe provided by Chef Mervyn Phan as a base, I went on to include other aspects of Straits cooking into the dish, particularly through the use of garnishing condiments like bunga kantan and kerisik. They are not added simply for colour and presentation but more importantly, to create a more faceted profile in terms of textures, flavour and aroma. If one was to walk down this path of experimental crossovers, one might as well swing it full-scale. Are these inclusions being overzealous or too trying? I think not… but you tell me.
I really like the flavours created through the laksa pesto. Technically, it is still very much Italian but the deviation to infuse more hues of Asian cooking created much more colours and dimension to the dish without losing relevance. I am convinced that this fusion works, but not necessarily a convert. Not yet at least. The old soul in me says that sticking to the traditions would still be very much part of my cooking repertoire, but opening to experimentation with new flavour combinations and crossovers seems an interesting path to walk down once in a while. We shall see…
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